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Friday, October 8, 2010

Action Tags versus Dialogue Tags

We’ve all heard that using lots of dialogue tags is frowned upon, especially adverbial dialogue tags:

“Oh, are you leaving so soon?” she asked sadly.
“Billy, hurry up!” she screamed/exclaimed/shouted/yelled excitedly.

I was reading Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (again) last night, and within a page Ms. Rowling used 'said Fred seriously,' 'said Ron darkly,' 'said Harry flatly,' and 'said Ron hastily.' Clearly, exceptions are everywhere, but more and more we are being told to stick with a simple he said/she said. Many times, even these aren’t necessary.

Use action tags to turn this awkward and crowded sentence on its toes.

“This homework stinks like Uncle Carl,” Gary sighed heavily. “I hate math,” he added emphatically.


Gary slammed his book shut. “Math stinks worse than Uncle Carl.”

Perhaps you’re writing a scene in the kitchen and there is a garbage can full of foul odors.

“Smells like a rose,” Gary said sarcastically.


Gary pinched his nostrils shut. “Smells like a rose.”

Same thing, only with action to show the sarcasm. Your readers are smart enough to get it.

A great post by Ann Marble (click HERE) on the use and abuse of dialogue tags has other fun examples. I was SO guilty of making these mistakes in my manuscripts, and still have to look out for them. I swear they just sneak in, it’s not really my fault… here are a couple things to keep an eye out for (straight from A. Marble’s post):

Don't use a verb used to describe an expression and then try to force it into becoming a dialogue tag. It won't work. People don't grimace, grin, smile, and frown their sentences. Consider this line of dialogue: "You'll never get away from here," her evil guardian sneered. Even the most notorious villain doesn't know how to sneer a line of dialogue.

"But my villain has to sneer," the writer said. Of course. It's in his nature. So try this instead: The evil guardian sneered. "You'll never get away from here." Don't worry about the attribution. As long as the action is kept with its dialogue, the reader will figure out who said what.

The big kahuna of dialogue tags to avoid is "hissed." It's used a lot, but quite often, it's used where it's unwelcome. We've all seen this dialogue tag abused. For example: "Get out," she hissed. OK, you try it -- hiss that line. Something's missing -- the sibilants. I suppose the Snake Creatures of Tilolaca could hiss that line, but that's about it. Your characters shouldn't have to be forced to hiss their words.

There are a few links at the top right that discuss this topic and provide more examples to look out for. I suggest taking a look at your pages to see if you can change a few of your dialogue tags to action tags. Or maybe you’d rather go to a movie or something instead—that’s cool too. Mom and Dad are coming this weekend, so I'll be cleaning up the house and giving the lawn one last mow this season.

Have a wonderful weekend!


  1. Ah, excellent advice! I really liked the "hiss" example. "Get out!" not even a single "s" in it!

  2. My pet peeve is when characters laugh, smile, and sigh words. :)

  3. You always have great ideas and, even better, good examples. Thanks for the reminder!

  4. Great examples! I think every writer finds these in their first drafts. It's natural. But I guess that's what revisions are for!